The subtle changes brought to the Golf GTi Clubsport make it a more potent driving machine than the exiting Golf GTi Performance – and a more capable one, too. There’s greater edginess to its performance and added precision to the handling, making it a truly memorable car to drive hard in the right conditions.
Yet despite its more focused nature, it continues to deliver excellent levels of chassis compliance and superb practicality, meaning it also makes for perfectly acceptable everyday transport. This dual personality is very much at the root of its appeal, although the jury is still out on its styling, which to these eyes appears a little heavy-handed from certain angles.
It’s no surprise to learn that the engine is the dominant feature of the Golf GTi Clubsport. Its added reserves endow its delivery with greater urgency than that of the Golf GTi Performance, giving it a more determined character.
There’s superior shove and a pleasingly flexible feel at low revs. Even if you’re not in the optimum gear, the hefty torque brings excellent response on a loaded throttle. But with an overboost function serving up the full 287bhp on the kickdown, there’s also a stronger feel at the top end of the rev range, making it more stirring drive than its already highly capable sibling when given room to move.
Indeed, there’s real fun in firing the Golf GTi Clubsport along, thanks to the precise action of its standard manual gearbox and alluring exhaust note, which burbles away with a deep, throaty resonance at low revs and gradually builds to a determined growl as the rev counter nears the 7000rpm redline.
At 1375kg, the new model tips the scales at a claimed 7kg above the Golf GTi Performance. Despite this, Volkswagen claims a 0.6sec improvement in the 0-62mph time at just 5.9sec. The altered aerodynamics provide added stability at typical motorway speeds, while also helping to raise top speed by an incremental 2mph at a limited 155mph.
The highlight, though, is the handling, which has been elevated well beyond that of the Golf GTi Performance, thanks in part to the availability of Michelin Pilot Cup 2 tyres, as fitted to all examples at the launch in Portugal this week. It’s not a big transformation in character, but it is definitely more talented in the chassis department.
With high levels of structural rigidity and grip enhanced by the fitment of the semi-slick rubber, the Golf GTi Clubsport is supremely agile. Turn-in is sharp, the electro-mechanical steering system quickening as you apply more lock in corners. It is very precise in its action and offers a decent amount of feedback, allowing you to place it well on the road.
Superb damping ensures body roll remains well suppressed as lateral forces build. You can carry high speeds up to the apex without any premature breakaway at the front end. The rear end is also more stable than what we’ve encountered with the Golf GTi Performance, providing the driver with greater confidence when forced to lift off mid-corner.
The addition of Volkswagen’s XDS electro-mechanical differential, meanwhile, allows you to get on the power early out of corners and remain committed at the exit without any unruly wheelspin. The ability to get its ample power to the road is one of the defining traits of the Golf GTi Clubsport, which is said to lap the Nurburgring circuit over 10 seconds faster than the Golf GTi Performance.
Dig deep and you discover the front end eventually relinquishes its purchase when pushed hard, although the level of breakaway is quite high and the onset of understeer is very progressive, the reworked chassis providing sufficient adjustability and control to allow you to trim the line by gently easing off the throttle.
The ride, while firm, is superbly controlled. It should be pointed out, though, that our first drive of the Golf GTi Clubsport was on the Portimao circuit – a snaking 2.9-mile-long ribbon of smooth bitumen that hardly resembles the appreciably bumpier, coarse-surfaced roads the car will encounter in the UK. Even so, it managed to soak up kerbs without any great harshness.